Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Growing radishes on earth and in space, is easier than you think.
The very first seeds I direct sow into my spring garden are root vegetables, and first among those are my favourite of all vegetables, radishes. I love tomatoes more than radishes, but tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables, so radishes win on a technicality.
All root vegetables - and there are many - are radically amazing. They are miraculous by nature. And nature, she is so clever, hiding the very best bits underground where they stay hidden from our would-be food competitors, some growing sweeter even as the weather grows colder and food stocks grow scarce.
As their name implies, root vegetables are the underground parts of plants that humans (and animals) eat. Technically, root vegetables are divided into two groups. Most common and popular perhaps are the 'true' root varieties, which include 'taproots and tuberous' roots such as beets, carrots, celeriac, radishes, etc. The second group are 'non root' root vegetables (I know, botanists have to confuse things) and include as 'bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers' such as ginger, turmeric, yams, water chestnuts, and potatoes.
Root vegetables are super-charged energy batteries for plants, made up of starches, sugars and other carbohydrates, in varying combinations depending on variety. That's simplistic of course, but simple is good. Simple is also smart, inexpensive, and healthy. The great news is that root vegetables are easy to grow, easy to cook, easy to preserve, easy to store, easy to share, and of course then easy to love.
My particular favourite is the charming heirloom* French Breakfast radish; ready to eat, from seed package to plate in 25-30 days. French Breakfast greens (tops) are lovely in salads, or sauteed alongside cherry tomatoes (Sungolds in particular, my second favourite 'vegetable'), or blitzed into smoothies or fresh juices. *Heirloom seeds are those that have been passed down for 50 years or more, by way of seed saving, without genetic modification or hybridization. French Breakfast were introduced in 1879, at the famous city markets of Paris, France.
The radishes themselves are otherworldly, crisp, refreshing, slightly peppery with age, even sweet around the edges. Their snow white tips and cherry red tops sing spring and good health, and they are more or less foolproof to grow just about anywhere you please. I grow so many radishes that I have more than enough to pickle and ferment for gifting, and for consumption all winter.
For all of these reasons, I gift radish seeds. To gardeners, to wannabes, to hesitators, procrastinators, and most particularly to the dubious. From one $2.50 package of 400 French Breakfast seeds, you can grow $55 - $110 worth of radishes (Walmart/Wholefoods) in whatever containers you happen to have handy --- buckets, boxes, planters, even upturned old hats. Plus, you can do it from home on a ledge, patio, fire escape, rooftop, or in a planter pot, raised bed, or garden - all without driving, peddling or riding to a store. And, if you live where it rains even somewhat, you can use collected rainwater for irrigation.
Knowing all of this then, why don't we? Good question. We all should. Root vegetables are truly amazing vegetables whose virtues were known and loved by indigenous peoples all over the world for thousands of years. Even NASA recognizes root veg superpowers, and is in fact growing and harvesting radishes in space - in an International Space Station specialized container garden habitat known as 'Veggie'. Whole, fresh vegetables are critical to astronaut health, hence the spacey gardening trials. What does that tell us then about life here on earth? Indeed, we should be growing and consuming more fresh vegetables of our own. And by weight, root vegetables can be our best bet strategically and economically.
Root vegetables store well in root cellars, cool and dark cupboards, and in basements. Who hasn't rescued a relatively ancient and slightly bendy beet or parsnip from the back of their crisper drawer, only to find it still and entirely capable of roasting up oh-so-sweet and beautiful? That's stored energy -- nature's perfect little nutrition battery -- just waiting to be consumed and utilized by us. Good carbs, good fiber, natural sweetness, awesome natural vitamins and minerals, super tasty. What's not to love?
Today here in zone 7B I am planting radishes in my raised beds. I will distribute them among three beds, inter-planting with other crops, so that the fullness of their beautiful greens is both shared, and not missed should I decide to harvest an entire patch for pickling (which will happen, for sure). Potatoes will go in next week, as will carrots, parsnips, turnips, and more beets. I still have winter beets in a raised bed that was covered in heavy-weight row cloth to protect the beets from frost and snow.
If you have been sitting on the fence about growing food, my hope is that you will try growing radishes. They will prove to your very quickly that your thumbs are greener than you imagined, and that the whole business of growing food is way easier and cheaper than shopping for groceries. And absolutely, without a doubt, it is way more fun! If you don't believe me, send me a note and I can mail you a packet of French Breakfast radish seeds. I have about 100 packets left, set aside for gifting (first to ask, first to receive by mail to anywhere in North America), and it would be my pleasure to spread the radish gospel.
Growing radishes outdoors is easy:
Sow seeds in the early spring or late fall, but not during hot weather. Radishes are what are known as cool season plants. You can though, have success planting in part shade or on the north side of a trellis or fence, during summer. Recommended soil temperature is 65-75F, but seeds will germinate below 65 (and above 75 if shaded).
Sow seeds 2-3" apart, in a shallow trench that is 1/4" - 1/2" deep in a trench, depending on variety. Refill the trench with soil just to cover; water seeds in, and keep soil moderately moist (think of moist chocolate cake) throughout.
Radish seeds are small, so it can be difficult to space them evenly. Don't worry though because you can easily thin them to 2-3" apart after they have grown to one inch or so in height. If you don't thin them out, they won't have room to grow into lovely plump radishes, so be sure to do the thinning. The wee plant babies you pull out are delicious as a garnish (this is after all, what microgreens are - smart you, free gourmet garnish) or in salads, so don't toss them out. Some people have great success transplanting the thinned seedlings, but I find this only works well in fairly cool weather.
Harvest after 25-30 days, depending on where you live and what your climate is like. Don't worry about whether or not they are perfect, big, small, ready, or not. Radishes are edible at all stages up until they are mature. Younger radishes are less peppery than older ones. Don't wait too long though, as older radishes (like many of us humans) become woody and oftentimes hollow.
Clean radishes right away in tap or rain water, and dry thoroughly. Remember to save your veg washing water, and use it to water your plants. Use the greens as you would beet greens or collard greens, or in salads. Store the radishes separate from the greens, in a breathable container in the fridge (crisper works best). Radish greens are relatively delicate and degrade quickly, so use them right away.
Ways to enjoy radishes:
Eat them fresh. One of my favourite childhood memories is of sharing radishes with my dad while working in the garden, dipping them into a tiny pile of salt on a plate. The second part of that memory involves me enjoying the foam off of his glass of beer, but then that was in the '70s, before we all knew better.
Add them to a simple vegetable plate of carrot and celery sticks, with a simple dip made from something you already have in the fridge - mayonnaise or plain yogurt thinned with garlicky pickle juice for example, yes really!
Use radish greens 50/50 with basil in mixed green pesto.
Slice them onto sandwiches - so tasty and crunchy. Unlike lettuce, radish slices hold their crunch well, mashed into mayonnaise in a room temperature lunch bag.
Roast them. Yup, just like carrots, beets, and potatoes. Toss radishes in a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and roast at 350F until done like dinner. I eat 'just' roast veg for dinner sometimes, they are so delicious.
Toss a few in with your potatoes when you boil them for mashing, then mash right along with. Add carrot chunks for colour and a peeled clove of garlic or two as well - so yummy. Want more yummy? Stir in some goat cheese or herby cream cheese just before serving.
Add a radish or two to fresh juices and smoothies. The pink 'watermelon' radishes add a lovely pink hue to beverages.
Slice or julienne radishes and toss them with a simple vinaigrette; to eat as a side dish or add to a sandwich.
Top risotto or pasta with julienned radishes - they pair perfectly with Pecorino cheese.
Quick pickle them - add sliced radishes to a clean jar, then top with a hot brine made from 1/2 cup each of any variety of vinegar and water, with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon honey or sugar. Let cool, cover and refrigerate. Add a few peppercorns, chili flakes, coriander seeds, or a peeled clove of garlic to the mix if you like. Let them 'pickle' for at least one day before eating. They will be be gone before their 30-day best before date.
You tell me. I would love to know what you love about radishes.
So that's it for this week, my radical radish root vegetable rant. I hope I have convinced you to try them, or love them, or try them again in a new and different way.
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
If you haven't subscribed to MF's Million Gardens Movement newsletter, please do.